North Korea: The Soprano State?

Day Two of the Asia Pacific Roundtable

I am currently attending my first official Track II diplomacy level conference, and so far it has been an intense and slightly Model UN reminiscent experience.

The last session of the night however, was an amazing presentation by a certain Professor Andrei Lankov.

The guy has a wikipedia page. That, in my book, clearly indicates he is an academic of worth (hehe).

In all seriousness however, it was probably one of the best presentations I have ever attended, let alone on the issue of North Korea.

In his adrenalin fueled, Russian accented speech, Professor Lankov gave us an insight into where North Korea is at, and why he believed that inevitably the nation would collapse.

He started off by emphatically stating:

You may think that the North Korean leaders are irrational and unpredictable.  You couldn't be more wrong.

The North Korean administration he stated, are the world's best Machiavellians.  They are rational, pragmatic and cold minded.

They are in the business of SURVIVAL.

What do we mean by that, you ask?

Well, the North Koreans for decades now, have run a tightly controlled state in which they perpetuate the fantasy that their neighbour, South Korea, is poor, malnourished and beneath them. They are proud of being the North Koreans.

If the North Koreans understand however, that the Kim Jong era has in fact failed economically, that their previously impoverished South Korean cousins are now flourishing and prospering, the Northern state will fall apart.  As such, the administration is in the business of stability.

The Four North Korean Rules of Stability are summarised as such:

1. Do not reform.

If the NK's begin reform, there is the almost inevitable possibility that information from the outside will filter through and the dictatorship will begin to lose control. As such, avoiding reform means avoiding avenues that will lead to loss of control.

2. Kill all dissenters.

So that no one with a single opposing view remains. Until the mid 90's, if an individual dissented, they and their family would be jailed for their disobedience.  The zero tolerance approach is a crucial component of controlling the populace.

3. Keep the nukes.

Talks about disarmament, Lankon cautioned, will never come to fruition because the North Koreans will never give up their nuclear weapons.  Why? Nukes are the dictatorship's currency: they are an effective deterrent and their most effective diplomatic tool.

The Northern Koreans know that as long as they have nuclear capability they will not be invaded: if Libya hadn't given up it's nuclear weapons a decade ago for example, NATO wouldn't have aided the rebels/freedom fighters against Gaddafi. The US, country will attack a country with such a high risk.

Furthermore, the North Koreans use their nuclear program to secure an exorbitant (read millions of tonnes) of free aid and food by promising to freeze their nuclear program, due to the world's desire for disarmament.  Essentially, they are eating their nukes.

4. Control changes from below.

One of the ways that change may happen is from below -- similar to Tunisia.  As long as these changes are kept under control, the risk of change is minimized.


It would seem that the collapse of the North Korean state is inevitable, but that time frame in which that will occur is unknown. If they newer generation of leaders (who are all educated overseas, proud of their country, enamoured by the cases of China and Vietnam) decide to undertake reforms in the next decade or so, Lankov believes they probably won't survive the transition. If they are cautious, emulate the policies of their fathers and forefathers, it is likely they are "just waiting..."

It is amazing to think a nation like North Korea still exists today.  A nation where health care and education are comparatively high due to the socialist method of care, but where owning a tuneable radio can lead to a five year prison sentence... a nation which, if they fail, will produce millions of refugees, the opportunity of kilos of plutonium for sale and procure an extremely costly rebuilding project...all on Australia's (relative) doorstep.

Food for thought.